GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 21, 2012

Kirk eyes comp plan for city's free cash

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — The City Council has appropriated $176,500 from the city’s bounty of nearly $5 million in free cash for fiscal year 2012 to fix the heating systems and eliminate drafts at the elementary schools.

But on the heels of that emergency action Monday night at a special council meeting, Mayor Carolyn Kirk has also issued a comprehensive proposal for deciding on the use of the remainder of the bonus $4.8 million, certified by the state’s Department of Revenue earlier this month after the reconciliation of the city’s fiscal 2012 books.

“With the exception of the urgent requests and funding for the outskirt (fire) stations, the comprehensive plan will be submitted to the Council in early January,” Kirk said.

Her memo to the council, released to the Times Wednesday, includes reimbursing the stabilization fund the $616,000 for a charge of that amount appropriated to the School Department to cover the cost of the Charter School carried by the city last year .

As a secondary priority, Kirk said the administration would identify “opportunities to increase service levels (from those budgeted), such as opening fire stations more often, and filling shortfalls in the budget, mostly in school facilities.

“We’ll take the month of December and figure this out,” Kirk said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The administration has already advanced the proposal to appropriate $246,000 to the Fire Department for use toward more consistent opening of the outskirt fire stations, primarily Bay View.

In this proposal, $46,000 would be set aside for overtime needed to expand the shifts to a size that would allow the stations to open. Sixteen at work on a shift allows Bay View to open, while fourteen are required to operate only Central and West Gloucester stations.

Another $200,000 would go into a departmental stabilization fund from which the chief, Eric Smith, could draw to create shifts of sufficient size to open Bay View and Magnolia stations. The contract requires eighteen to open Magnolia.

The third element in the mayor’s free cash plan involves appropriations to strengthen the city’s reserves and liability positions after a review by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Towne during the month of December.

Then, Kirk said, “The fourth step is to look at all other needs within the city, and determine if there are any one-time opportunities to invest in. For example, last year we used $50,000 to repair the Goose Cove Causeway, and almost $20,000 in new furnishings for the Children’s Room at the Sawyer Free Library.”

She said the reimbursement to the stabilization fund was a pledge to the bond rating agencies.

“The agreement we made with City Council is that we would use one-time money to balance the budget on the condition that it would be the first priority for replenishment,” the mayor noted. “Based on this understanding with Council, we represented their commitment to our bond rating agencies.”

The council Monday approved the use of free cash to fix boilers and heating systems in Plum Cove, Beeman, Veterans and East Gloucester elementary schools and fix windows and doors at West Parish Elementary School, and the generator at Veterans.

“These are emergency problems,” said Councilor Joe Ciolino. “If our home heater broke, we’d call the repair man and get it fixed immediately. The kids deserve the same.”

The council, however, shelved at-large member and former mayor Bruce Tobey’s request to table all spending from the free cash account until the mayor released her comprehensive plan for the use of the funds — the most in a single year that the city has ever enjoyed.

In 2008, the year she became mayor, Kirk inherited a free cash deficit of $3.8 million, which was reduced to $2.4 million in the next year.

By her third year in office — the first of her second term — Kirk’s administration of the city yielded free cash of roughly $2 million, followed by $3.3 million from fiscal 2011 and this past year’s record $4.8 million.

“Repeat after me — free cash is a good thing,” Kirk said during the telephone interview.

There was no free cash during the Bell mayoralty, but, in the years Tobey was mayor, free cash was available in small numbers at first and later in larger amounts, topped by $3.4 million in fiscal 1998.

In his emailed memo to the council before the special Monday night meeting, Tobey wrote that “the practice of the most previous administration to deal with free cash (which was mine) was to present a single comprehensive plan so the council could fully understand the options which were coming before it. To manage free cash piece-meal is not the best practice, in my opinion, and the council should insist on a comprehensive plan.”

“The community is entitled to the expenditure of recurring free cash revenues (and the record of the last several years shows clearly that there are at least several hundreds of thousands of dollars of recurring revenues to be used) through our annual budgets going forward,” he added, “and now is the time to begin that practice as it relates to fire protection.

“We should expend no free cash until a plan is produced to reopen the Bay View and Magnolia fire stations,” Tobey said.

Kirk and Fire Chief Eric Smith released a preliminary plan Tuesday aimed at providing more open time for the outskirt stations.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.